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Being a revolutionary or pursuing an emancipatory path in the period of negotiations

Being a revolutionary or pursuing an emancipatory path in the period of negotiations
An undated file photo of Former South African President Nelson Mandela (right) talking to incumbent State President FW de Klerk (left) at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: EPA / STR)

The period of negotiations was one way – one cannot say that there was any single way – of playing out a revolutionary role. Some would see it as the opposite of revolution, representing a ‘sell out’ or betrayal of the revolution.

This is Part Five of the series on pursuing a revolutionary or emancipatory path in South Africa. In this instalment, whether a revolutionary or emancipatory project is compatible with negotiations. For previous articles in this series, see Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.

Many of us were unaware of the talks that had been taking place secretly in the 1980s between the apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela on the one hand and, on the other, Thabo Mbeki and others with the agreement of the NEC and Oliver Tambo as president of the ANC.

There was a mandate, but misgivings were expressed about the way the mandate was carried out. High levels of secrecy were necessary to initiate such talks, but that secrecy also aroused suspicion or misgivings that were raised by Chris Hani, among others in the ANC leadership. (See Document 143 ANC National Working Committee minutes, Lusaka, January 22, 1988, in Gail M Gerhart, Clive L Glaser, From Protest to Challenge. Challenge and Victory, 1980-1090, vol 6, Jacana Media, 2013, pp 625-631).

It should be noted that Nelson Mandela had no mandate to initiate talks with “the other side”/“the enemy” and conducted no consultation, even with his closest comrades before initiating these. To act without consultation – especially on matters of great gravity is a serious violation of the principles of collective decision-making. But Mandela saw that there was an opening; a possibility of making gains on a different front from that pursued until then, and he took the opportunity.

He had nothing to gain personally from this breach of decision-making processes. When he told his comrades in Pollsmoor, they all thought he was right, understanding that there must be space to deviate from a principle – even a basic principle of the organisation if there was a possibility, as was the case here, to open up a new terrain to advance the Struggle.

Those of us who were not in the inner circle concerned with negotiations were often insurrectionists. We had been exhorted by the ANC and the SACP to make South Africa “ungovernable” and apartheid “unworkable” and to build people’s power.

And we understood this to be part of a process of overthrowing the apartheid regime. In consequence some of us, like myself, were a little slow to be drawn into the discourse and processes around negotiations, constitution-making and talks with “the other side”, even after the unbanning of the ANC/SACP and others and negotiations starting in earnest from 1990.

I think in my own case I did not take in what Mandela understood: that there was a deadlock and that the ANC could not defeat the apartheid regime on the battlefield. MK was in any case a people’s army – a liberation army that was not meant to engage in set battles with a conventional army – and it was consequently not able to defeat the SADF. I, and I am sure many others, did not know this and had never been involved in discussions of the respective military capabilities of both sides.

There is no doubt that the conditions of the late 1980s created a condition that Antonio Gramsci describes as “reciprocal siege” (Selections from the Prison Notebooks; Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971, pp 238-239) where one side could not contain resistance, but that resistance was insufficiently powerful to dislodge the incumbent government. 

Neither could defeat the other; no side was on its knees. 

That is a situation conducive to a negotiated settlement. Negotiations become possible when both parties recognise that they cannot impose their will on the other or can only do so at a cost they are unwilling to bear.

End the carnage

I came to understand better over time that more important than defeating the enemy on the battlefield (even if that were possible, which I had believed) was to end the carnage, because the wholesale killing of people was primarily murder of the oppressed people of South Africa.

And I understood that the oppressed majority had to be defended and violence against them needed to be stopped as a matter of urgency. Peace was not a popular word among some of the populists who came to hold office in the more decadent period after 1994. 

In 1990, as the head of ANC Political Education, I produced a booklet called The Road to Peace. I remember Blade Nzimande asking why I did not call it “The Road to Power”. There was a failure to understand that peace and non-violence were preconditions for the existence and sustainability of all human rights and democracy itself. That is abundantly clear in 2023.

And force of arms was not the only way of defending the oppressed people. When the opportunity for a negotiated settlement arose, the resources of a future democratic state would be obligated to defend human lives and human rights. (It has not turned out that way, regrettably, and I will return to that as this series concludes).

The negotiated settlement is depicted by some sections of the left as a situation where an “elite pact” was drawn up, whereby the ANC and its allies made concessions and decided to forgo very important demands on the economic front.

I didn’t understand it that way. I was a member of the ANC leadership then, and we used to meet at 6am every day when negotiations were taking place, and no suggestion of “trading” key demands was made in our discussions and the mandate we gave to negotiators. What economic policies were later pursued did not derive from any pact.

I understood the economic goals as ones that were not agreed on by everyone in the liberation movement and beyond. Economic goals were now to be pursued and contested within a democratic framework; a constitutional framework that was being unfolded in the period of negotiations.

And those who favoured socialism, or any other tendency, would have to struggle to win that battle on a different front – in debate and through political organisation, among other sites where such issues needed to be raised.

Negotiations and popular power

Talks about talks were initiated while popular power was at its height. What was the status of popular mobilisation and organisation in the democratic South Africa that many of us hoped to see emerge?

There was no understanding on the side of the liberation forces that negotiations meant the demobilisation of the masses and the organs of popular power insofar as they continued to exist. That was not a condition for talks to begin.

But those popular movements were not understood in one way, with some of the leadership less favourably disposed towards popular action than others. And some saw the masses as valuable but primarily as a “battering ram” (a phrase not used at the time, but appropriate) to force concessions, not as valuable in its own right. But I understood those organs of popular power to have a continuing role in a democratic South Africa during and after the negotiations.

And it was important that these popular movements and new members drawn into the ANC and its allies should have acquired a sense of agency and have been infused with emancipatory ideas so that they could drive a process for achieving an ever-broadening revolutionary/emancipatory outcome, ever-opening liberatory outcomes where everyone’s talents would unfold to the fullest extent. That emphasis on the agency of the masses, and not simply watching leaders purport to act on their behalf, did not happen as the transition unfolded.

Unbanning, but conditions unfavourable for ANC

As the negotiations took shape after the unbanning of the ANC, it was clear that the apartheid regime was not acting in good faith; that it intended to put the ANC and its allies at a disadvantage by unleashing violent attacks through its security forces and allied so-called third forces, incorporating Inkatha and others who had been trained by the SADF to attack the people of South Africa. (See Mondli Makhanya).

It was clear that they were trying through these attacks to neutralise the ANC’s support base. And this happened with several massacres in the 1990s, notably the Boipatong and Bisho massacres of 1992.

Although the apartheid regime was not acting in good faith, we understood as revolutionaries – but also as a broad organisation of forces in support of achieving democracy – that we had to show our strength, even if we did not do so through force of arms.

Insofar as the regime no longer understood the language of reason, we had to communicate with the language of power (of the people in the streets or wherever located). One of the turning points, as has been remarked on by many people, was after the assassination of people’s hero Chris Hani in April 1993. The level of anger that was manifested in the country was so great that it could possibly have led to a civil war and it was a decisive moment.

Many have said that was in fact the moment of transition from apartheid to the rule of the ANC, because it was not FW de Klerk who could address and bring calm to the people of South Africa, but Nelson Mandela, who gave a speech to the nation that night. And shortly thereafter, a date for elections was agreed on and the process towards democratisation and constitutionalism was set in motion.

Uneven awareness

The framework for pursuing revolutionary goals had changed: first to negotiations and, gradually, the establishment of a constitutional order with a new and progressive basis within which future politics could be pursued.

While I say that I was not prepared, that I was an insurrectionist and was not ready for negotiations, I don’t say that out of pride. It just happens to be what I was aware of, what I fought for and what I understood as being required of me from where I was, because I was not fully conversant with what was happening behind the scenes.

I think it’s important to understand that those who did understand how the process would in fact develop had a better appreciation of the need to prepare for and be trained for a new civil service and to be ready to occupy high positions there.

And because not many were involved in thinking about that, decisions on the civil service lacked a democratic debate, which may have ensured that the civil service that resulted was more fundamentally different from that inherited from the apartheid regime.

That there had been these talks without the knowledge of the membership of the ANC and its allies resulted in a degree of disunity after 1990. Many people who had been preparing for an insurrectionary seizure found themselves in a situation where the same leaders who had encouraged them to risk everything to overthrow the apartheid regime were talking to “the enemy”.

In fact, within a few months, they were making concessions that rocked MK, especially when the ANC negotiators unilaterally suspended armed action. (Personal experience as a political actor in this period, though Vladimir Shubin writes that at the meeting “of the National Working Committee on 14 May 1989 the possibility of suspension of armed actions was touched upon. The ANC NWC confirmed that the cessation of violence was an issue and not a precondition….” – ANC. A view from Moscow, 2 ed, Jacana Media, 2008, p 279).

No doubt, also, where one foresees this development which some but not all of the leadership did, one has to conduct one’s talks in secret and cannot consult in a conventional democratic way insofar as it was widely practised in the UDF and to a lesser degree in exile (depending on location and context. I insert these qualifiers to avoid the exile/“insile” binary where everything inside the county is depicted as democratic and exile authoritarian).

The success of the linking of the two main negotiating parties, if that were to be the route to resolving the apartheid situation, required a degree of secrecy and dissimulation, even towards the ANC’s own membership and followers. In some cases, as indicated, information was unevenly shared with the leadership.

The constitutionality of withholding information from leadership (insofar as this allegedly happened with those pursuing talks and did happen with Mandela), if valid, is a serious question that deserves investigation. Whether or not it was the case is hard to research because of the confidentiality of the proceedings.

My impression is that the office bearers of the ANC tended always to know some things that were not communicated to the whole leadership.  This applied not only to negotiations but also to significant underground operations like Vula, which may only have been known to President Oliver Tambo and then leader of the SACP, Joe Slovo, who were its joint commanders.

When I was a member of the ANC national leadership between 1991 and 1997, I never heard any item from the intelligence services presented to the National Executive Committee. Undoubtedly there were reports, but these were provided, presumably, to the office bearers or the president alone.

Justifiable as it may have been within the pre-negotiations context, the steps taken to manage the transition after 1990 did not take sufficient account of the sense of betrayal and anger felt among much of the membership. Some of that bitterness persisted long after negotiations.

There was in fact a widespread if misguided belief that the liberation forces could have defeated the apartheid regime militarily and that the attempt to do so had been shut down prematurely.

That former president Jacob Zuma could evoke great emotions when he sang the song “Umshini Wam”/“Bring me my machine gun” outside his rape trial speaks to this sense of frustrated militarism; a sense that there could have been a different outcome. (This song also had other imagery associated with it and, indeed, phallic imagery, in the context of the rape trial. See Raymond Suttner, Power and ANC masculinities: the Jacob Zuma rape trial, 2009 Nordic Review of Feminism and Gender Studies, pp 222-236, available on request).

It also left many cadres with skills that had, a few years earlier, been valued – for example, those required to blow up Sasol (the fuel from coal plants built by the apartheid regime in order to cope with potential oil sanctions, blown up by MK guerrillas in 1980), feeling that they would soon be of little use in the type of society being negotiated.

And indeed many of the people who were in the immediate post-democracy period without means of subsistence were those who sacrificed conventional educational opportunities to learn military skills. (See L Mashike, “Some of us know nothing except military skills: South Africa’s former guerrilla combatants”, in S Buhlungu, J Danuel, R Southall and J Lutchman (eds) State of the Nation. South Africa 2007 (HSRC Press, Cape Town, 2007), pp 351-378); “There has generally not been a concerted programme to re-skill them in order to occupy a place where they can contribute and benefit in the current situation.” – Mashike, pp 352, 355-356, 357, 362-363).

Those who made no such sacrifices and had the opportunity to acquire higher degrees, often joining the organisation in the 1990s, or have not joined, are often better placed than many who sacrificed such opportunities to join MK.

Briefly evaluating negotiations as the route to South African democracy

There is now a fairly large literature on negotiations, some works very recently published. In consequence, I cannot do justice to the topic here, but restrict myself to raising some concerns.

The process of negotiations did lead to the desired outcome of universal adult suffrage practised for the first time on South African soil in 1994. It also led to the development of a Constitution that may be one of the most progressive in the world by virtue of the extensive rights it advances and protects.

My reservations relate to the way in which politics was practised (for negotiating is a form of politics) in this period.

My one concern is the downgrading of the popular – a powerful force in the 1980s – responsible to a large extent for securing the possibility of the two sides sitting down to talk.

By the popular, I do not simply refer to accountability or report-backs. With some exaggeration, consultations around the development of the Constitution were compared with the gathering of demands for the Congress of the People, out of which the Freedom Charter emerged. (On how different the cursory consultation for the Constitution was compared with the campaign for the Congress of the People, see Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, Thirty Years of the Freedom Charter, 1986 and Fifty Years of the Freedom Charter, 2006).

In the 1980s, popular power emphasised accountability and report-backs, but it went beyond that and entailed popular agency; people taking control of governance affecting their own lives. 

That there are representations to Parliament now is important, but insufficient to encompass wide-ranging popular action – people not being spectators but active in their own lives, doing what they can to remedy what affects them adversely and building local-level democracy.

To recover popular democratic forces will be difficult in that the UDF and popular power arose in very specific conditions, and in communities that are very different today from in the 1980s.

But the incorporation of the popular needs to be part of the rehabilitation of South African democracy after the Jacob Zuma/Cyril Ramaphosa “wasted” years. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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